Bell Island’s Missing Link

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians rightly find it unacceptable that their tax dollars subsidize an expensive ferry system that reinforces rather than alleviates intergenerational unemployment and poor health outcomes. There is a better option.

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Fall was becoming winter when the great black hill appeared. 

For older generations, the hill might have resembled coal once stockpiled on this part of Bell Island, not unlike mounds of iron ore found elsewhere in the community. Born in the mid-1990s, I cannot remember either. 

Walking toward the black hill, smoke plumes and blazes dotted the distant landscape. 

The black hill, grimly Seussical with its serpentine posture, was not coal or ore. The hill was made of tires. There were tires from trucks and cars, requiring a Herculean effort to situate, down to children’s training wheels tossed thoughtlessly among the pile. Pallets and driftwood and tree branches interlocked the black hill. It was Guy Fawkes Night. I was ten years old. 

When the hill was lit, an inky smog out of Tolkien’s Mordor filled the air. Morphed into an enormous  illuminated creature, the black hill belched and hissed as flames consumed it from base to summit. Nearby, young men and teens were drinking and celebrating their burn. 

The men spoke of their most successful bonfires. The fences they’d torn down, the old sleighs, even hockey sticks they’d parted with in the name of igniting a monstrous fire. Then the men offered their fantasy burns. “Wish we had some of those mega tires like on the mining trucks in Alberta.” “I’d love to get my hands on some old shed no one is using and light it up.” 

One, who’d perhaps had a drink more than others, offered a nightmarish vision. The MV Beaumont Hamel — that rust-bucket of a ferry — ran aground. Doused in gasoline and stuffed with wood, flames burst through the windows of the passenger lounge. A Guy Fawkes Night of Hindenburg proportions. 

“You’ll never see that one,” responded the men, sipping nervously at the disturbing suggestion. 

“Never say never,” the man continued, “The island will be a ghost town the way things are going. Boats rusted and sank, stores closed and houses abandoned. What a bonfire night that would be.” 

Decades of Failed Ferry Services

Groups of Bell Islanders stay warm in their cars, parked on a frozen tarmac. Folks pray for one of fifteen seats on three small planes carrying locals to Torbay while the ferry is shut down. A team of dart players from CBS visiting for a weekend tournament are hoping for a flight across the tickle. Asked by a reporter if they will be returning to Bell Island soon, a player laughs as he responds: “Never again.” 

On Thursday night, a government committee seeking input from residents of ferry-dependent communities visited Bell Island. The committee received a “noisy reception.” Mayor Gary Gosine captured the community’s message to the government when he said “We feel, as a town, this is the final kick-at-the-can. We’ve been doing it for 30 years.” 

On Friday night, the worst happened. With an individual facing a medical emergency, and with no Ferry to safely transport an ambulance, search and rescue in Gander was engaged and JTF Atlantic confirmed a Cormorant was dispatched to assist the individual. Protestors stood at the Ferry terminal decrying the failures of the ferry service and demanding better from the government. Bell Island was an hour away from declaring a state of emergency by the time the Ferry finally started running again on Saturday. With local stores out of essentials like bread, milk, and vegetables, trucks were on standby for the first opportunity to bring supplies to the community. 

The stranded dart players on the tarmac? That was 1986. The raucous committee meeting that lamented thirty years of ferry-related struggles? That was a Thursday in 1999. The state of emergency, empty store shelves, and medical crisis? That was a Friday in 2016 due to mechanical failures. The protestors? 2017. Believably, any one of these events could be happening right now in 2022. 

Teresita McCarthy, a former Town Councillor and member of the Bell Island Ferry Users Committee, recently took to social media to comment on the ferry situation: 

It is Christmas — name a year, any year. While everyone else is making plans to be with family in other parts of the province, country, or world, Bell Islanders are hedging their bets. These bets include: Will I get to work? Will I get dialysis or chemotherapy? Will my family get over for the meal I cooked? Can I get to the other side to be with brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandchildren? If I get really sick, can I get to St. John’s? The facts remain, our highway is the ferry. It is public transit. Maybe next Christmas, we won’t have to hedge our bets and our highway will be open to use just like the Trans Canada! Now, there’s a gift!

The Portugal Cove-Bell Island Ferry Service needs transformative change. That this change might take the shape of uninspired neoliberal reform would be a shame. More than change, the ferry service needs to be undone altogether. A hundred years of public transportation policy that doesn’t support the wellbeing of residents or enable prosperity in the region proves this. 

How did it all start? In 1896 the mining company on Bell Island needed logs to build a shipping pier. Eventually, the steam vessel tasked with carrying logs was outfitted with seats for passengers. The Bell Island ferry service was born. Citizens continued to organize and advocate for better services. Quickly, a petition was presented to the House of Assembly to subsidize the steam vessel. In 1928, The Pawnee became the first vessel capable of carrying vehicles to operate between Portugal Cove and Bell Island. 

By the 1960s, as mining waned and higher unemployment rates underlined the need for accessible public transit infrastructure, a tradition of volunteer-based grassroots activism was pioneered on Bell Island. The local fight for mobility justice has endured. Bell Island’s struggle with chronic mechanical failures, poorly communicated scheduling, and lack of capacity on ferries, has endured in equal measure.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians rightly find it unacceptable that their tax dollars subsidize an expensive ferry system that reinforces rather than alleviates intergenerational unemployment and poor health outcomes. There is a better option. 

The Future is a Fixed Link 

Imagine you’re at a dinner party in St. John’s. News about Bell Island comes over the radio. Folks shake their heads in disbelief. 

After all, the latest dispatches from the Iron Isle have been distress signals: the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the entire province and no testing to boot; not a single family doctor left in the community; a ”scathing” report from the Auditor General on the mismanagement of the ferry service; 20 consecutive years of a boil water advisory—among the longest such advisories in the country. 

Your fellow dinner guests, nostalgic for delicious fish and chips, hockey tournaments, and mine tours, might ask: “What can be done to help that poor town?”

 “A fixed link,” you pipe-up. Eyebrows get raised. “Like a bridge, or a tunnel.”

There’s laughter. Some are angry at the sheer recklessness of the thought. 

You make the case: 

The common thread weaving together Bell Island’s challenges is mobility injustice. A largely commuter workforce leaving early in the morning and coming home late at night misses out on vaccination clinics. While just a spit from St. John’s, Bell Island’s ferry-dependence will exacerbate the struggle to attract and retain health professionals and will turn routine support from the local emergency room into ambulance rides on ferries and medical evacuations on helicopters. The mismanagement highlighted in the Auditor General report exists precisely because our ferry has isolated us not just geographically but politically. Our small, economically oppressed population wields little influence in the halls of government. And finally, the greater tax base needed to invest more significantly to repair aged water lines has never materialized as our population continues to dwindle. With an unreliable ferry restricting new employment opportunities in the community, retaining youth, let alone attracting new residents, remains challenging. 

Around the world, picturesque island communities with close proximity to capital cities are the gems of their regions. Far from a gem, Bell Island is viewed as a thorn in the side of our provincial coffers. Comparable islands are centres of international tourism, exclusive real estate, and cultural exhibition. With sufficient pause to grimace at a gentrified Bell Island, consider the opportunity for Bell Island to contribute to the region as a signature destination to live, play, and work. Rather than serving as a microcosm for Newfoundland’s struggles — a disconnected island unable to rebound from resource extraction collapse — let’s  empower Bell Island to symbolize a new Newfoundland: an island connected culturally and entrepreneurially to global flows of ideas, people, and resources.

If bleeding-heart pleas for mobility justice aren’t enough to sway you, here’s a business-friendly scenario. Annually, the Government spends tens of millions of dollars on the Portugal Cove-Bell Island Ferry Service. Every few decades, new ferries, costing tens of millions more, are constructed. With a population of about 2500 persons, the need to spend big on transportation isn’t going anywhere soon. Imagine, instead, the Government attracts one of the world’s giant infrastructure companies to construct a fixed link to Bell Island. Government provides the company with a $10 million annual subsidy. Additionally, for thirty years the company has been permitted to operate a toll paid by thousands of vehicles using the link. The province maintains ownership of the fixed link asset, saves tens of millions per year and economic activity on both sides of the link skyrockets. With an active commuter workforce, proximity to the capital, and just five kilometers of water to traverse, if Newfoundland and Labrador replaced ferries with a fixed link anywhere, it would have to be to Bell Island. This exact model has worked elsewhere in the world. Can it work in this case? We don’t know. If privatization is inevitable, we should find out if a partnership to construct a fixed link is viable before simply passing the keys of the MV Legionnaire over to a private company.  

It’s time for a fixed link to shift from the realm of tin-foil-hat-wearing optimists, to the realm of serious inquiry and consideration. While other remote communities might balk at the idea of a fixed link—believing their ferry is a great filter for perceived busyness and decay in urban centres—Bell Islanders would embrace renewed connection. We remember the glory of our mining days involving diverse groups of people, from different places, seeking and building opportunities on Bell Island. 

The Big Red Rock

Al Gore’s 2006 climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth concludes with a powerful photograph of Earth taken nearly four billion miles away by NASA’s Voyager 1. 

“You see that pale, blue dot?” Gore asks, “That’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history, has happened on that pixel. All the triumphs and all the tragedies, all the major advances… it’s our only home. And that is what is at stake, our ability to live on this planet, to have a future. I believe this is a moral issue, it is your time to seize this issue, and it is our time to rise again to secure our future.” 

I have never forgotten the pale blue dot. I experience my own living version of the photograph every time I arrive in Portugal Cove to wait for the ferry. From the ferry line-up, the entirety of Bell Island is laid before you, end to end. I am reminded  that every piece of iron ore ever mined, every job won and lost, every great sporting event, political debate, plate of Jiggs dinner, every child moved to the mainland, all happened on that single rock. I think about the many struggles on Bell Island, and how our own pale blue dot in space, or, more accurately, our big red rock in Conception Bay,  represents our shared vulnerability, achievements, and potential. I think about how the time is right for change.

A grandiose comparison perhaps. But when you’re from a small island community, one often disconnected from the mainland, that island can feel like the whole world.

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